When the Beatles Refused to Play Before a Segregated Audience
The Beatles performed a concert in Florida only once. And they were willing to cancel the Sept. 11, 1964, date at Jacksonville's Gator Bowl when they learned the audience was to be racially segregated.
The policy was in defiance of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson that July and banned segregation in public accommodations. For the group, which was heavily influenced by African American music, the idea was anathema, and the four Beatles demanded that black concertgoers sit with their white counterparts. They issued a statement five days before the show that noted, "We will not appear unless Negroes are allowed to sit anywhere.”
“We weren’t into prejudice,” Paul McCartney said in 1966. “We were always keen on mixed-race audiences. With that being our attitude, shared by all the group, we never wanted to play South Africa or any places where blacks would be separated. It wasn’t out of any goody-goody thing. We just thought, ‘Why should you separate black people from white? That’s stupid, isn’t it?'”
The story was recounted in Ron Howard's 2016 documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years. "All of them, by the way, were very emphatic about Jacksonville," said Larry Kane, a radio journalist who accompanied the band on its 1964 U.S. summer tour. "They said if there's going to be segregation of any kind, we're not going.
"It was amazing that the four of them - young men seeing the world - started to act up and blow back on this very, very hot, sensitive issue, knowing that it would really irritate a lot of Americans."
From then on, the Beatles demanded integrated audiences upfront. In 2011, a contract from their 1965 show at San Francisco's Cow Palace surfaced as part of an auction. One clause reads succinctly, “Artists will not be required to perform before a segregated audience.” It sold for $23,000, well above the expected price of somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000.
"We were kind of quite intelligent guys, looking at the political scene and, coming from Liverpool, we played with black bands and black people in the audience," McCartney remembered while doing press for Eight Days a Week. "It didn't matter to us."
Dr. Kitty Oliver, a black historian who attended the concert as a teenager and was interviewed for the movie, recalled the night in a blog post for the Beatles Story, a museum in Liverpool dedicated to the group. Unaware that the group had demanded the crowd be integrated, she expected to be seated in a separate section without a good view. Instead, she wrote, "The room chilled as I walked into a sea of white faces. I sat in silence with elbows drawn in tight to make sure I did not accidentally brush an arm and spark an outburst.
"As the band entered and the crowd rose, a tall, slender white man to my left who looked to be in his 20s rocked unexpectedly close as the crowd rose, thunderous, in unison, when the Beatles took the stage. Then tunnel vision set in: Eyes glued to the front, I sang along to 'She loves me, yeah, yeah, yeah … ' - full-voiced, just as loudly as everyone, all of us lost in the sound. Afterwards, inching out of the stadium, I brushed past two other black concertgoers - a brother and sister who introduced themselves and expressed surprise that I was there alone."
Watch an Interview About the Beatles' Refusal to Play Segregated Show
Although there's no report of any incidents between white and black concertgoers, the show did not go off smoothly. With Hurricane Dora threatening the Jacksonville area, the Beatles' plane from their Sept. 8 date in Montreal - itself a scary situation due to Ringo Starr receiving death threats because some people thought he was Jewish - was rerouted to Key West. They weren't able to arrive in Jacksonville until the day of the show. The storm passed, but there were still strong winds, with gusts up to 45MPH. Starr's drums even had to be tied to the floor. The bad weather reportedly led to 9,000 of the 32,000 ticket holders staying home.
Opening sets were by four acts: the Exciters and Clarence "Frogman" Henry, both of whom were African American, and the Bill Black Combo and Jackie DeShannon. Then came the Beatles. While roadie Mal Evans was securing Starr's kit, he noticed a swarm of unauthorized camerapeople in front of the stage preparing to record the show. The promoters were unwilling to have them removed, so Beatles publicist Derek Taylor took to the stage and told the audience that the group wouldn't perform until the camerapeople were ousted. The crowd's reaction led to the photographers' departure, and then the 12-song, 30-minute set began.
The Beatles did not play Florida on their 1965 or 1966 tours, though they'd previously been in Florida nine months earlier for their second appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. During their stay in Miami, they met with boxer Cassius Clay, who was training for his bout with Sonny Liston. Shortly after defeating the champion and claiming the title, Clay converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
During the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, McCartney recalled the era. "In 1964 the Beatles were due to play Jacksonville in the U.S., and we found out that it was going to be a segregated audience," he wrote. "It felt wrong. We said, 'We're not doing that!' And the concert we did do was to the first non-segregated audience. We then made sure this was in our contract. To us it seemed like common sense."
Starr retweeted McCartney's message and added his own message: “As my brother Paul said, the Beatles always stood for equal rights and justice, and I’ve never stopped working for peace and love ever since. I send my peace, love and continuous support to everyone marching and speaking up for justice and a better world.”